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Fees skim big bucks from 401(k)s

A household of two median-income earners will pay about $155,000 over 40 years

Consumer Reports magazine: July 2012

Illustration: Otto Steininger|threeinabox

Mutual fund fees in 401(k) plans can look tiny—a median of 1 percent of assets per year, says financial-data provider Morningstar. But over a lifetime of saving, they can really scramble your nest egg. A recent study by Demos, a research and advocacy group, found that an American household of two median-income earners will pay, on average, almost $155,000 in 401(k) fees over 40 years. Yes, you read that right.

“This household could have bought a house with the amount they paid in fees,” the report notes. And because mutual funds in 401(k)s take fees off the top before reporting rates of return and share prices, “account holders generally have no inkling how much all of this costs them.”

Compare, for example, the net expense ratios—operating costs—of ING Thornburg Value Portfolio Advisor Class with those of Nationwide S&P Index Institutional Class. Morningstar says both funds benchmark the same financial index. But the ING fund charges $13.90 per $1,000 invested annually while Nationwide charges $2. Growing at 9 percent annually over 20 years, $10,000 invested with Nationwide would grow to $53,847, compared with just $42,358 with ING, a difference of $11,489.

Net expense ratios are only part of the picture. Trading fees could add 1 percent to what you pay, Demos says.

High expenses can weaken even funds with above-average returns. A 2010 Morningstar study found that low-cost mutual funds consistently performed better than high-cost funds, regardless of asset class or time period.

What to look for

If you have a 401(k) plan, look this summer for correspondence spelling out mutual fund expenses. By Aug. 30, thanks to a new Department of Labor rule, all 401(k) plans must give participants an easy-to-follow explanation of each fund’s average annual returns over one, five, and 10 years; the comparable returns of a benchmark fund; and average annual operating costs as a percentage of assets and as a dollar figure per $1,000 invested. The goal of providing that uniform data is to permit apples-to-apples comparisons. Check your quarterly statements, too. Other tips:

  •  Within each asset class (large-cap, small-cap, international), replace higher-cost funds with lower-cost funds that have comparable portfolios. Consider index funds, which simply mirror the portfolios of broad market indices such as the Standard and Poor’s 500. Managers don’t need to do a lot of research to pick index portfolios, so costs are low.
  • If you want more low-cost 401(k) funds in your plan, arm yourself with comparisons and join other plan participants in asking trustees to offer those choices.
  •  Agitate for your plan to switch to a less costly share class of the same fund. Differences can be significant: Pimco Total Return bond fund, for instance, has an expense ratio of 0.46 percent for its institutional shares, compared with 1.15 percent for its retirement-class shares.
  •  If your plan’s choices are pricey and unlikely to change, invest the minimum needed for the full company match (typically 6 percent of your gross income, for a 3 percent match). Then put other savings in a Roth IRA composed of low-cost funds or in a traditional IRA.
  • If you’re 59½ or older, you may be able to apply through your employer for an “in service nonhardship withdrawal” and roll over part of your 401(k) balance to a traditional IRA with more choices. Read the fine print for restrictions and penalties.

Did you know?

You can compare how expenses of two or more funds affect long-term performance with the free Fund Analyzer sponsored by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority at apps.finra.org/fundanalyzer/1/fa.aspx.
   

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